It’s a strange thing to think about. While in this point in time, today is just any other “normal” day in the year, nearly a century ago it marked the beginning of what was then one of the bloodiest, most intense, and most horrific conflict in the entire span of human history.
World War I, known originally as the Great War or the World War, witnessed the involvement of tens of millions of men, and millions more civilians; it was one of the first to incorporate, on a large scale, the staples of modern military technology – artillery, machine guns, tanks, planes, and others; and invoked much of the complex intrigue, realpolitik, and diplomacy that have come to define warfare in the 21st century (indeed, these factors contributed to the start of the war, and in some cases even exacerbated it). Though long since overshadowed by the more prominent and relatively recent Second World War, it was this conflict that would first introduce the 20th century to it’s terrifying – some would say defining – new potential for stupidity, barbarity, and violence; the unresolved issues and consequences of the Great War would in fact precipitate that second horrific conflict just two decades later.
It was because it began on the cusp between modern and pre-modern warfare that the death toll – anywhere from 15 to 65 million – was so gruesomely high; advanced technology allowed men to kill each other with greater ease and speed than ever before, yet tactics and tradition didn’t adapt to this new reality, sending millions to their deaths as they charged machine gun or were in tight, vulnerable formations. It was not uncommon for thousands of men to die within a single day, in just a single battle; imagine that going on for four years (in the infamous Battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on just the first day, with total casualties mounting to 1,100,000 – larger than many wars before that time).
What’s most tragic than the eye-watering amount of death is how optimistically the war was initially pursued. Every country seemed to think it would be a clear and quick victory – no one anticipated years of an entire generation being ground with such disturbing effortlessness. There was a strong spirit of patriotism, nationalism, and pride, and men signed up or were conscripted with the assurance that they were fighting the good fight, that God was on their side, and that they’d emerge with the glory of victory. The fine window dressing of war was perhaps nothing new, but it certainly reached a whole new level of manipulation and sophistication (indeed, the modern propaganda machine as we know it was pretty much invented in this conflict, and fully utilized, thanks to the advent of radio and mass media).
As with most of my reflections on war, I could never grasp the sheer toll of death. None of us can even imagine witnessing a single life become extinguished before our eyes. Imagine tens of millions, most of them young (younger than me even). Every one of these men had a story, a personality, hobbies, ambitions, loved ones, hopes, fears – they were all distinct individual persons whose humanity was eliminated and forgotten, rendered into cold, large numbers most of us can’t visualize. As the old saying goes, while a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. As much as we’re horrified by the gruesome cost, our minds – especially nearly a century later – cannot even begin to grasp the nearly unprecedented amplification of human misery.
Serbian troops, waiting for battle.
Serbia, who’s role in the war is often overlooked, lost the largest amount of lives as a proportion of it’s population- 25% of all troops, 27% of it’s entire population, and 57% of it’s men; France was so weakened by the conflict – the average height of the country fell because of how many able young men were killed or maimed – that it had neither the will nor the manpower to support it’s war effort the second time around. Three mighty empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire- would all collapse and cease to exist, the first of them being weakened enough to come under the rule of what would become one of history’s most totalitarian regimes (and ironically enough, one of the major factors in our defeat of the Nazis in WWII). The consequences that befell Germany perhaps need no mention – we all know how the post-war instability and harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty facilitated the rise of the Nazis, among other fascist movements throughout Europe). Even the peace that came after the war was bungled.
It’s disquieting that even after all the death and misery that these nations shared, war would revisit so soon and so much more horribly. The raw angst, revanchism, and misery that followed was such that it drove people to fight once more, in order to restore lost glory and right past wrongs. The bloodshed and injustice only ended up creating more bloodshed and injustice. The so-called modern age that all this occurred seemed no more enlightened and transcendent than any before it – societies were just as bloodthirsty, arrogant, violent, and barbaric than ever, only this time technology and ideology would be horrifying multipliers, especially the second time around.
I am immediately reminded of a brief but morbidly poignant poem by Carl Sandburg:
ILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
It’s remarkable how easy it is for the deaths of millions to be forgotten with the progression of time and society. Think of the numerous battles and thousands of deaths that have ever occurred on the same area of land, much of that land long since developed, built over, or innocuously overgrown with nature, losing any sort of significance (to this day, fragments of weapons and even human remains are still stumbled upon in Europe). There’s scarcely any sign today that such a conflict ever occurred in the first place. Indeed, the last combat veteran of the war died only a few months ago, leaving only Florence Green, an Allied servicewomen with Women’s Royal Air Force. With them will be the end of any personal recollection of this now mythical conflict. Like any war, the raw passions and emotions will be supplanted by detached academic retrospection – books, films, documentaries, and war records. We’ll study it just as we do all the other wars that have ever occurred, with the second great war not too far behind (the last of that conflict’s veterans will pass within the next decade-and-a-half).
Christopher Hitchens reviewed an excellent book that also reflects upon the scope and scale of the brutality, callousness, and arrogance that defined the war (he also weighs in with his own astute and sobering analysis):
…Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)
For anyone else who is a military and history buff like myself, or is otherwise interested in exploring this often forgotten conflict, there is an excellent website devoted to archiving and educating about the entirety of the conflict, including a timeline, important battles and figures, propaganda posters, documents, and still more. I strongly encourage everyone to give it a visit.
I can only end this somber musing with one sliver of optimism: that since this bloody introduction into the 20th century, we’ve seen few conflicts, both in terms of frequency and intensity (though the Congo Wars and the Iran-Iraq War would certainly come as close as ever in their scale, and even similarity in the case of the latter). Despite popular belief, inter-state warfare is mercifully rare, and even the more common internal kind lacks the same scale of bloodshed – though the brutality still remains. Like the 20th century, we’re entering an age of thus-far unparalleled progress , and with it a new age of warfare: rebel movements, cartels, pirates, cyber-terrorists, and clandestine conflicts between intelligence agencies. Whether our progress will help transcend these petty squabbles, or enhanced their horror, remains to be seen. It all depends on whether we remember that progress in technology is one thing, where as progress in our way of thinking is another. While WWI is largely forgotten, we can only hope the lessons won’t be.